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power points

From an early age, you were taught to play it safe. The message came forcefully from parents, indirectly from fairy tales and nursery rhymes, and memorably when falling from a tree or touching a hot stove burner. Being cautious made sense.

But Angie Morgan and Courtney Lynch, who met in the U.S. Marine Corps and now run a leadership consultancy, have another warning for you: Sometimes playing it safe can hinder you. “Through the many leadership development journeys we’ve been privileged to guide, we’ve realized that even the best leaders often lack the one critical skill that always leads to breakthroughs: the constant ability to bet on themselves,” they write in their third book, Bet on You.

They stress they are not talking about the big, scary risks that are featured in Marine Corps commercials. Instead, it’s the small, consistent risk-taking that pushes you out of your comfort zone a little more each day, allowing you to achieve more.

Failure? Sure it will happen. Indeed, they acknowledge that despite your best efforts and intentions, failure is almost impossible to avoid. And there will be times when taking risks will lead you astray or result in what they call glorious fails. “It’s better to fail when attempting something important that will allow you to grow than fail when you’re not stretching at all,” Ms. Morgan and Ms. Lynch argue.

But don’t obsess over failure. Risk can be difficult because the word is so closely associated with danger, peril, liability or threat. But they say there is a second essential yet unpresented side of risk: “It’s the only path that leads to growth, opportunity, self direction, transformation and positive change – all experiences that are possible and attainable by you.”

Their message is that risking well is not about dreaming bigger. Your odds for success improve if you dream better. That means having a clear understanding of what you truly value achieving. You must be selective, since there are so many options to bet on yourself.

Dreaming better means assessing whether you have access to starting points that will launch you on the journey toward the success you imagine. As a child, Ms. Lynch wanted to be an astronaut and, to help her on that path, a military pilot. But she had poor eyesight, and Marine Corps aviators need 20/20 vision. The pathway wasn’t there. Timing can also be a factor. They note you may have to turn down a promotion that requires extensive travel because you need to care for your aging parents. Save that challenge for a better season.

Next, check that you have the resources to achieve your dream, and how you can access them. Choose good guides, who can accelerate your success: people with more insight and experience, who can offer you their knowledge, new ways of thinking, and hopefully support. In some cases, you will have to connect with them and invite them into your life.

Ms. Morgan and Ms. Lynch warn that you are surrounded by a lot of people who you didn’t choose, be it family or co-workers, and some of them might not be inclined to offer support as you take a risk and move away from your (and perhaps their) comfort zone. “Just because somebody has proximity to you doesn’t mean that person always has your best interest at heart,” they write.

We do brave things when we feel safe, so weave a safety net. Identify what you need for security, without exaggerating or, alternatively, underrepresenting what is needed. Finances can be important. Your job may seem like part of your safety net, but they argue your biggest safety net is your talent, so take career development seriously, not leaving it as the organization’s responsibility.

Above all, start readdressing your approach to risk. “Rather than believe that risk is the opposite of reward, we want you to think of it as the path to reward,” Ms. Morgan and Ms. Lynch write.

Quick hits

  • Ottawa-based consultant Chris Bailey, who likes to test productivity concepts on himself, suggests you try an experiment: Tomorrow morning use your phone as your alarm and when it awakens you accept its offering of digital novelty. The following morning wake with an alarm clock, your phone banished to another room, and go as long as you can without checking your devices. He believes you’ll find slow mornings lead to deliberate (and productive) days.
  • Venture capitalist Paul Graham says one sign that determination matters more than talent is there are lots of talented people who never achieve anything, but not that many determined people who don’t.
  • Offering a product free can backfire. A new study found that when something is offered free, people are more likely to think of the incidental costs involved: the time and effort to make the purchase, or the risk associated with it. That doesn’t arise with low-cost purchases, so when trying to attract new customers free has a downside.
  • If you get nervous before a presentation – even a modest one, such as taking your turn answering a question in a meeting – presentations expert Gary Genard says the best solution is to concentrate on listening to whatever other people are saying. It sends your energy in the opposite direction from where it’s probably going: toward others rather than yourself.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.